Vicarious Farming

Confessions of a Steward with Joel Salatin


When I wax eloquent about farming as a good and necessary vocation, even suggesting that we should have many more farmers (and fewer factory farmers), people often squirm and respond, “But all of us can’t be farmers.”

It’s the same kind of response we often feel when sitting in a missions emphasis service and find our inner heart saying, “But we all can’t be missionaries.” Or a sermon about helping the needy, and we respond, “But we all can’t run a soup kitchen.” You know the drill. If there’s one thing worse than not being convicted when we’re wrong, it’s being incorrectly convicted when we’re not wrong. Remember, Satan is the great Accuser. But in all these ministries, we can be vicarious participants, either directly or indirectly, through prayer, offerings, and an attitude of helpfulness.

We need plumbers, electricians, welders, sawmill operators— you know the list. Farming tends to be vocationally higher on my list because it’s the front line of creation stewardship. Farming shapes God’s landscape— air, soil, water, trees— more dramatically and directly than any other human activity. Indeed, Rev. 11:18 says God will “destroy those who destroy the earth.” Stewardship is near and dear to God’s heart.

Just like all of us should have a heart that leans into missions or helping the needy, we should have a heart that inclines toward farming because creation care is something God mentions specifically. So how do those of us who aren’t farmers participate, or at least incline responsibility, just like we do with missions or philanthropy?

The first attitude is to care. That’s not as trite as it sounds. Interest precedes activity. Intention precedes movement. As we cultivate care toward farming, the obvious first question is what kind of farming God wants. Does God care about farming modality? Are all farmers doing good, or are some doing bad? Just like we would vet a missions program, adoption program, or any other philanthropic endeavor, we must vet farming.


Aerial view of fresh organic various vegetable on wooden table


An exercise I like to encourage folks to cultivate is when you sit down to eat, look through your plate to the other side, and envision the kind of farming that puts those morsels on the plate. If you need to squint your eyes, that’s fine. Ha! Look at the food and imagine everything behind it.

Provenance includes numerous threads. The farmer as producer is one, but it also includes the processor, the distribution network, marketing, and point of sale. As you squint through your plate to the other side, ask some salient questions:

• Does this food build soil or destroy it?

• Does this food honor the workers who brought it to my table?

• Does this food maximize nutrition or minimize nutrition?

• Does this food respect and honor the beings—both plant and animal—that sacrificed for my sustenance?

• Does this food encourage understanding or ignorance about how it was grown, handled, and brought to my plate?

• Does this food make neighbors happy or unhappy—smells and appearances?

• Does this food help my community emotionally, economically, and environmentally or jeopardize those elements?

• Does this food engender transparency or opaqueness?

• Does this food honor biology or mechanics?

• Does this food bring rural and urban populations closer as friends or does it alienate and segregate?

As we take each item on our plate and run it through this battery of questions, we can see where it falls on a continuum of sacredness. Perhaps the most important question to any of these queries is: “Does God care?” Does God care if farming techniques erode the soil? Does God care if we create a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf of Mexico? Does God care if we stink up the neighborhood?

 We could ask the same questions about any of our more ministry-oriented activities. Does God care how missions are done? How the gospel is preached? What organizations receive our offerings? I’ve found that the faith community loves discussing these issues, but suddenly when it comes to food and whether Chick-fil-A is what should be on our plate, we clam up and look the other way.

Just like we are admonished to take on the sufferings of Christ, the sufferings of persecuted Christians, and the needs of widows and orphans as a means of identification and interest, we can take on farming by identifying as fellow participants with the food we choose to put on our plates. Is the landscape created by our food dollars the kind of landscape we want for our children? Is it one that honors God’s creation?

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Joel Salatin co-owns, with his family, Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm, and his farm services more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, and a farmers’ market with salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, pastured poultry, and forestry products. When he’s not on the road speaking, he’s at home on the farm, keeping the callouses on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, mentoring young people, inspiring visitors, and promoting local, regenerative food and farming systems. Salatin has published 15 books, and he is the editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, granddaddy catalyst for the grass farming movement. He passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm.


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